This week is looking at the Prelude. It is a long, autobiographical poem which Wordsworth worked on for a lot of his life, revising, editing and changing as he changed. Because it spanned a significant part of his life, it can show us how Wordsworth evolved and how his writing developed over time. As part of the course, in addition to looking at the poems, we’ve been able to look at the manuscripts which provide interesting insight into Wordsworth’s writing process.
Spots of time
This extract is Wordsworth telling us his theory about life, that there are “spots of time” which may seem insignificant but which will turn out to be important. These might be intense emotional experiences which can be recalled and bring strength and relief and restoration to the mind. They bring together our past and our present. The moments themselves will turn out to bear fruit and have value later down the line.
My spots of time
Sitting on roughly poured concrete,
now set. Soil leaks from the strawberry patch
and baby hands reach out.
…ten years on, same spot,
no strawberries, concrete replaced by paving slabs.
A butterfly flutters and lands and rests
on a teenage hand.
Connection for the unconnected.
Dead fox. Oldest sister.
Duty calls a soldier.
Youngest sister released.
Fetch back up. (Please hurry).
There is no protocol.
No training has prepared
or taught how best to act.
Watch over russet corpse.
Watch over the dead fox.
And when it blinks, do not scream.
There is no instruction guide.
And no one told this small child
that death moves within the dead.
In Boat Stealing, Wordsworth is describing one of his own spots of time. At this point in the course, having already engaged in discussion and creative exercises, we are asked to write a short piece, 250-500 words about this extract. These will be marked by our peers and in turn we will provide feedback to others. Here is mine:
Boat stealing is written in blank verse and this reflects the sense of Wordsworth telling us about the incident. The form echoes a stream of consciousness, like that of a dream or a recalled memory. It is conversational and story like, even starting with “one evening I went…”. This helps the reader to feel like they are there and makes it come alive. This line also suggests that the speaker is the adult Wordsworth retelling the incident.
The first part of the extract uses a lot of images about light eg “the moon was up, the lake was shining clear… small circles glittering…”. Despite it being night time, these bring to mind a sense of safety – it is dark but the boy can see and that light helps him to feel safe. He uses similes to describe the boat, “like a man who walks with stately step…” which help the reader to get a sense of the boy’s mindset and emotional landscape. He seems fairly confident, proud even despite knowing what he is doing is wrong. This “troubled pleasure” is one familiar to most people, that of pushing the boundaries in youth and feeling sure that even though what you’re doing is wrong, you’ll be ok. As this is a relatable feeling, the reader is drawn in and feels connected to the incident. The language all suggests a knowledge of the nature that surrounds him and this adds to the sense of surety.
About half way through the extract, emotions turn from confidence to something more lustful and potentially sexual:
She was an elfin pinnace; twenty tomes
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my Boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan.
Then suddenly, everything changes. What he thought was the horizon no longer is. “A huge Cliff, As if with voluntary power instinct, Upreared its head.” The descriptive, suggestive language is now replaced with more simple language showing a boy rendered almost speechless with shock. The contrast between the language of the first and second part make the image of the cliff as a dangerous being more powerful. Wordsworth personifies the cliff, suggesting it is alive and the boy no longer proudly rows but instead he paddles in a hurried way, with trembling hands. The urgency of the situation is reflected in the long sentence structure and repetition of “struck and struck again”. These images help the reader understand his fear. What the boy thought was the horizon, suddenly wasn’t. What he thought was a landscape and nature that he knew and felt safe in was suddenly unfamiliar and terrifying.
The extract ends with Wordsworth explaining how he was haunted by guilt and an uneasiness for many days. At this stage, I think we are hearing Wordsworth as a boy, but we know that since he is writing as a man the incident has stayed with him for many years.